President Pervez Musharraf claims he's declared a state of emergency to return stability to Pakistan. But most believe the controversial step will just edge this increasingly unhinged nation yet closer to the brink.
In a televised speech, the military leader said he suspended the constitution in order to better cope with a spreading pro-Taliban insurgency.
"Extremism has created a dangerous challenge to the existence of our nation," he said in a late-night address. "Now it's time for us to make very difficult and painful decisions."
Although he laid out plans to go after the extremists, Musharraf's decision to invoke emergency rule appears to have galvanized the country's moderates against him.
On Saturday evening, as police and paramilitary troops fanned out across Islamabad, soldiers burst into the Supreme Court and whisked away seven justices who refused to take an oath under the provisional constitutional order that Musharraf issued.
Police also rounded up opposition leaders, lawyers and pro-democracy advocates who have been agitating for months for an end to military rule.
One of the first to be arrested was Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He's been a leading public figure calling for Musharraf's ouster.
"One man has taken entire nation hostage," Ahsan told reporters as he was muscled into the paddy wagon. "The time has come for Gen. Musharraf to go."
Local television networks reported similar defiance from judges at provincial high courts around the country. The government abruptly blocked their transmissions.
Meanwhile, lawyers, opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists vowed to step up their campaign to bring down the ruling junta.
To prevent protestors from descending on the capital, police blocked the roads leading in and out of Islamabad. Phone and Internet service was briefly cut.
Pakistanis saw the move as an increasingly desperate bid to hold onto power by a leader whose approval ratings have plummeted.
Many here oppose Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terror, worry about a bloody streak of suicide bombings, and are struggling under soaring prices on basic consumer goods.
The past six months have brought unprecedented turmoil. Security forces have clashed with religious students in the capital, and are battling pro-Taliban militants across the northwest frontier.
"This country is already suffering crisis after crisis," said baker Sayed Sultan Hussain Kasmi, as he scooped unleavened bread from a tandoor oven. "This is yet another one."
In the coming days, the Supreme Court was set to rule on Musharraf's eligibility to serve both as army chief and president. Legal experts say Pakistan's constitution clearly forbids him from holding both positions at once.
"He did this to save his own skin because the law was against him," said Ashan Iqbal, a spokesman for the opposition faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
In September, the PML leader Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago, tried to return home from exile to launch a campaign for democracy. The military ruler swiftly had him re-deported to Saudi Arabia.
Another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was planning to sweep into Islamabad Sunday to rally support for a return to civilian rule, according to her spokesman.
"We stand against this move and so do the people of Pakistan," said Farhatullah Babar.
Bhutto was on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan, hours after the state of emergency was declared, The Associated Press reported.
After almost a decade in self-imposed exile, Bhutto initially returned to Pakistan last month, having forged a deal to share power with Musharraf that reportedly had Washington's blessing. It was unclear if that deal would survive.
In his address, Musharraf was vague about plans for general elections, originally set to take place in January.
Washington, meanwhile, had warned Musharraf not to suspend the constitution, saying Pakistan needed rule of law, not a dictatorship.
On Friday, the visiting Centcom commander, Adm. William J. Fallon, told the Pakistani leader that imposing emergency rule could jeopardize American financial support for the military. The U.S. has provided Pakistan $10 billion in military and other aid since 2001.
There's concern in Washington, which calls Pakistan a key ally in fighting Al Qaeda, that Musharraf has lost focus in the war on terror as he struggles to remain in power.
Analysts say the widening insurgency demands a return to civilian rule in Pakistan, if for no other reason than the army needs a full-time commander in chief to cope with the growing violence.
"I fear this could descend into a civil war," said Lt. Gen. Talat Massood, a former defense secretary and political analyst.
In Islamabad on Saturday evening, foreign diplomats were scrambling to make sense of the provisional constitutional order, which could govern Pakistan for up to a year.
"This sounds more like martial law than a state of emergency," said a western diplomat. "The million-dollar question is how long it will last."
Musharraf was vague on what direction he planned to take Pakistan, saying only it was time to "take action."
But he pledged that it was not personal gain that prompted the move.
"I want to promise to the nation that whatever decision I have taken, it is for Pakistan," he said. "This will remain my guiding principle: Pakistan first."
ABC News' Habibullah Khan contributed to this report.